The global food industry is a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, water pollution, and biodiversity loss. So if you want to reduce your carbon footprint and live more sustainably while munching on some yummy food, I got you. In this blog post, I’ll uncover some of the most sustainable foods that you can easily incorporate into your diet and why they’re good for both you and the planet.
This post might contain affiliate links, which means I may get a commission, at no additional cost to you, if you decide to purchase from one of the recommended companies or products. Please read the full disclosure for more information.
Also, please note that information from this blog post was gathered through online research and most of the data can be found at pnas.org This post is not meant to be medical or nutritional advice. Please see your doctor if you have concerns about changing your diet.
What are the most sustainable foods?
There are several variables to keep in mind when looking at the most sustainable foods in the world. They are
- land use
- water use
- GHGs (greenhouse gases)
- Nutrient pollution (acidification & eutrophication)
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but all that steak, ground beef, or lamb chops some of you like to eat on the regular? Not very sustainable.
Patrick Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods & professor emeritus at Stanford U., has stated:
“Reducing or eliminating animal agriculture should be at the top of the list of potential climate solutions.”
This is because numerous studies have shown the animal agriculture industry is destroying our planet & wreaking havoc on our overall carbon footprint.
And evidence from models at Stanford U. show that phasing out the animal ag industry, even over a period of 15 years, could reduce our carbon emissions by 68%.
It probably goes without saying that many animals are overbred and mistreated in the animal agriculture industry, not to mention that NO animal willingly walks up to the chopping block to sacrifice its life just so we can enjoy a juicy steak.
And those same animals give off waste that is often improperly disposed of, ending up in our drinking water, our crops, and the very air we breathe.
I mean, how many times have we heard about romaine lettuce recalls?? The animal industry is totally to blame here.
Taking this into consideration, the most sustainable foods seem to be:
- whole and refined grains
- fruits & vegetables
But the last one on that list- fish – seems to vary in “eco-friendliness” and it all depends on how it’s caught and where it’s sourced.
Let’s look at each of these foods and examine them further to find those that are the most sustainable and easy to find when shopping.
1- Minimally Processed Whole Grains
Both whole grains and refined grains are eco friendly because grains absorb atmospheric CO2, and their growth – per acre – requires a mere 10% of the amount of water a single cow needs.
Also, whole grains pack in way more calories than meat per acre of land. In fact, you’re looking at up to 10,000 times the calories, making growing grains a much more efficient use of land than rearing cattle.
Random fact: 80+% of all GHGs come from the animal industry!
Enter whole grains. Good for you, good for the planet.
Refined grains are whole grains that have had at least one of their key elements removed. Please excuse me while I nerd out for a sec.
You’ve probably heard of wheat bran and wheat germ, but have you ever heard of wheat endosperm?
The endosperm is the “meat” of the grain – the inside where all the wonderful nutrients like carbs, protein, and vitamins & minerals live.
White rice and white flour are examples of refined grains. They are generally “enriched” in order to replace the nutrients that are lost during the refining process.
An interesting side note is that the sustainability of rice decreases in certain situations. For instance, when rice paddies flood, methane gas is released.
Whole grains include:
- Whole wheat
- Wild rice*
- Brown Rice*
- Corn* (it’s not just a big lump of knobs!)
*also a gluten-free whole grain, but oats are often grown and processed with gluten-containing whole wheat, so be sure to purchase certified gluten-free oats if you have a sensitivity to gluten or Celiac disease.
There are other whole grains, but the above are the most commonly consumed here in the US.
Try any of the whole or refined grains for an eco friendly, healthy food.
2- Vegetables and Fruits
Pears, apples, and oranges are some of the most sustainable fruits because they don’t require a lot of water or the need for pesticides and fertilizers.
Side note: Some of the least sustainable fruits include strawberries, avocados, peaches, bananas, and cranberries. This is not necessarily due to the amount of water needed to grow (it’s relatively low) but rather because these fruits tend to be high in pesticides & weedkillers and/or are considered monoculture plants – meaning they deplete the soil of nutrients, which is not eco friendly at all.
Potatoes are another “green” option because they are super easy to grow abundantly without much water, attention, or the need for chemicals.
They can also be stored without refrigeration, boosting them up a notch or two in the eco friendly department.
Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and lettuce are excellent choices.
Greens don’t use a ton of resources, grow well in cool weather (when many other things aren’t growing), and mature quickly, so their crops can be harvested multiple times per year.
Pro Tip: Try to find fruits and veggies that are grown locally to minimize transport as well as support local farmers. Keep in mind seasonal produce when you’re shopping in the stores too.
Legumes are super eco friendly and they’re also healthy, not to mention incredibly easy to find in grocery stores.
What makes them so sustainable?
They’re known as “nitrogen fixing” plants. Thanks to bacteria that adhere to their roots (Rhizobia for all you germ nerds), they absorb nitrogen in the atmosphere (N2) and convert it to beneficial nitrogen within the soil (N4).
Not a lot of plants have the ability to absorb N2, and this whole process improves soil quality for future crops – like those veggies that will be grown during other parts of the year – and also cuts down on the need for fertilizers.
It also helps improve air quality because too much N2 is not a good thing.
Legumes are resistant to drought and extreme weather conditions, and they can be stored for long periods of time, canned or dry, making them a hot item on the sustainable foods list.
Sustainable legumes include:
- kidney beans
- pinto beans
- black beans
- garbanzo beans
- mung beans
- broad beans (aka fava beans)
- adzuki beans
- soy beans
Lentils are technically pulses, which are the seeds of legumes but I included them here for simplicity’s sake.
Also, I included soy beans because, by nature, they are a sustainable food. HOWEVER, soy beans are mass-produced and therefore contribute to deforestation and other climate issues.
But this is because more than 90% of all soy beans grown and harvested are fed to cattle.
Legumes, pound for pound, are super cheap (like way cheaper than meat) and pack a ton of protein, fiber, and iron, as well as other vitamins and minerals that are great for you.
You may have heard that almonds consume a TON of water. But a lot of other nuts do too. While almonds are grown here in the US, I don’t know how friendly it is to consume them in large quantities.
And there’s the whole debacle on how ethical cashews are. A few companies source them ethically – one of them being the Mylk brand (their raw cashews are yummy!) so if you’re on the hunt for this particular nut it’s important to look for certifications like Fair Trade.
However, there are some nuts that don’t require a huge amount of water for growing. Brazil nuts are one, and peanuts are another. And yes, peanuts are technically a fruit but most people look at them as a ‘nut,’ so I’ve included them here.
Chestnuts are also relatively sustainable.
But Chestnuts and Brazil Nuts are not grown locally, so that’s somewhat of a tradeoff.
If you can find organic and ethically sourced nuts and seeds, they are still way more sustainable than meat at the end of the day.
Fish that is caught ethically and locally is the most eco friendly animal protein out there. Of course there are a few exceptions to this, but overall, they’re a good option if you don’t want to or can’t give up meat.
Let’s take a look at some specific types of sustainable fish.
- Alaskan salmon – Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is sustainable because the Alaskan government has implemented strict management practices to protect the salmon population, such as monitoring the number of salmon caught and implementing fishing restrictions when necessary.
- Pacific sardines – these are a sustainable type of fish because they reproduce quickly and have a short lifespan, allowing for rapid population growth. Additionally, the fishing industry is closely regulated to prevent overfishing.
- Rainbow trout – Usually farmed sustainably, Rainbow trout are raised in a controlled environment and not taken from the wild. This allows for consistent production without damaging wild fish populations.
- Arctic char – this is a cold-water fish native to the Arctic and subarctic regions. They are often farmed in an eco-friendly manner, which allows for consistent production without damaging wild fish populations.
- Barramundi – Barramundi are native to Australia and Asia. They’re considered sustainable because, like others, they’re farmed sustainably with minimal environmental impact. Additionally, barramundi has a high growth rate, which allows for consistent production.
Most Sustainable Foods – Frequently Asked Questions
What is meant by sustainable food?
Sustainable food, aka ” eco friendly food,” is food that, when grown, treated, and harvested, has the least negative impact on our eco system and planet.
This means producing food that uses less water, is not likely to pollute the water or air, and any food that, when produced, is done in a way that can minimize greenhouse gas emissions.
This is important because the agricultural food industry is one of a handful of industries responsible for destroying our planet via:
- creating ~ 30% of all GHGs
- utilizing 40% of the earth’s land for factory farming (& growing crops to feed said animals)
- accounting for 70% of water loss across rivers, lakes, and natural groundwater reservoirs
- pushing more than 70% of all birds and mammals towards extinction
If we want to make a positive change, we need to look at foods that are more sustainable and less damaging to our planet.
And having an awareness of the least sustainable foods can help us educate others so that lawmakers can hopefully enact laws and policies that will turn things around in a positive way.
What is the most sustainable fruit?
The single most sustainable fruit is any fruit grown locally to you that requires minimal water and doesn’t rely on harmful pesticides or fertilizer.
Apples from your local apple orchard and oranges from a local farmer top the list.
What are the most sustainable and eco-friendly meats?
As far as red meat is concerned, the ruminants – beef, lamb, sheep, and goat – have the biggest negative impact due to the amount of agricultural “input” they require, whereas pork has the least. Also, ruminants give off methane gas as they digest their food, whereas pigs do not.
But the most sustainable meat is fish, with venison likely a close second, though some may argue it’s a tie.
The reason venison is included here is that if you catch it yourself, you’ve eliminated a lot of factors that make meat environmentally damaging, like the farming, housing, and resources needed to keep it alive before transporting it after slaughtering to process.
And because they are ruminants, deer also give off methane. So keeping their population under control is seen as beneficial from a global warming standpoint.
Now, I’m not a fan or supporter of hunting. I want to make this clear as some of my readers are vegan or morally opposed to hunting in general. But when discussing what’s eco friendly, it’s a vital point to make.
Even plant-based meat, such as Beyond Meat Chicken Tenders or Impossible Burgers, is a great alternative.
What is the single most sustainable food out there?
It’s hard to pinpoint the single most sustainable and eco friendly food there is. But according to the PNAS study, topping the list is sugar-added beverages. I don’t know that I’ll ever fully understand how this came to be, but here we are…
Since beverages are not a “food” next up are whole or refined grains and olive oil.
What are the least environmentally friendly foods?
At the top of the list is unprocessed red meat, specifically beef and lamb.
They use the most water, take up enormous amounts of land mass, and factory farming gives off a whopping amount of greenhouse gas emissions, making these two fall collectively in the number one spot.
What are some examples of sustainable food practices?
Growing the foods mentioned above, doing what you can to minimize food waste, and eating a diversity of food all help to improve food sustainability.
This means only buying what you’ll eat, finding food that stores easily for long periods of time, learning how to garden (and even how to compost your inedible food scraps), buying locally, and transitioning to a more plant-based diet.
(If you are interested in going plant-based, read my article on how to go vegan).
What are the benefits of eating sustainably?
Numerous studies show foods that are sustainable are also the healthiest for us to eat.
For example, nuts have the biggest impact on helping reduce mortality rates, and several types of nuts are also one of the most sustainable foods, although they’re not the most sustainable.
Conversely, processed red meat has the most negative health effects when it comes to heart disease, risk of stroke, and type II diabetes. It also appears to be the second most destructive food for our planet.
It probably goes without saying, but if you want to eat sustainably, you need to look hard at plant based foods.
Most Sustainable Foods – Some Final Thoughts
When I decided to write this post, I set out to publish something short and sweet.
But it probably took me longer to research and write than any other to date.
I know a lot of us stress out over the future of the planet, but I hope you see that making some simple changes – and some big ones – will make a difference in the long run. You don’t have to change everything all at once.
Just pick a few things to give up several days a week, and over time, the change won’t be as noticeable, and your body will thank you.